Music for the Child on the Autism Spectrum

by Stephen Shore
Excerpted from Stephen’s autobiography, Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2001).

I discovered the music room in my last year in junior high school. Based on an interest in electronics, I enrolled in an electronics shop-like course. I found the subject material fascinating. However, shop courses are where the “tough” kids were, so it wasn’t a place for me to accomplish anything. The teacher of this classroom, noticed my difficulties and arranged to have me transferred into band.

I went to band with my trumpet and have been playing in musical ensembles ever since. I loved the way the different color stage lights reflected off the shiny metal bell of the instrument. After a while I noticed the person next to me playing the trombone. I was fascinated by the larger bell and the piston-like slide of the instrument. Around this time, a friend of mine announced that he was selling his unwanted trombone for $25.00. After blowing some notes into it I bought it. I took it to a neighbor who used to play trombone and he responded with “Oh, my God!” and taught me the first few notes of the instrument.

I loved playing the trombone. The pitch range was nice and, now thinking back, it allowed me to work on some important abilities that often present a challenge to those on the autistic spectrum as well as others. The trombone worked well for me because I was able to practice muscle coordination as the slide had to be placed in the right position to play a note in tune. The positions of the trombone slide are on a continuum so there are no clicks or stops to indicate where the slide should go. The location of the slide has to be done via muscle memory with the ear checking for the intonation of the note.

Music for the Child with Autism

There are many benefits to using music on an individual lesson. Music provides the structural regularity that children with autism need. Within that structure it is possible to expand that child’s repertoire of functioning.

Music can be a wonderful tool for organizing behavior and working on various skills for children with autism. As the elevated square (Miller, 1973) in the Miller Method is used as a prosthesis for organizing a child within his world, music has some of these same properties.

In addition having value in an educational sense for children with autism, music has value in a physiological sense too. Research done in 1995 by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, who is himself a musician as well as a neurologist, shows a physical change in the brain structure in people who started music training at an early age. He reported in a study in the journal Neuropsychologia that a bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum, which carries signals between the two brain hemispheres, is about 12 percent thicker among keyboard players who started training before the age of 7, compared to keyboard players trained later, or to non-musicians.

When working with anyone, whether on the autistic spectrum or not, the first step is to get this person to orient to you. They first need to be made aware of your existence. This means getting as close to this person as needed for them to notice you are there. This area where the child notices you is considered as the Zone of Intention. This Zone of Intention is often quite small in children with autism. Once the child is oriented to you, the task is to engage that child. Only when the child is engaged is there a possibility of working in a meaningful way.

A term developed by Arnold Miller in lectures and in his writings. This is the space within which a child with autism is able to initiate and intend actions towards objects and people. The “Zone of Intention” begins small and increases in size with treatment.

The term is derived from Jean Piaget’s “zone of efficacious intent.” It is used to indicate the infant’s beginning awareness that the movement of arms and legs could induce an effect on the external world. “Zone of Intention” refers to the related but rather different concept that there is a changing distance within which a typical or disordered child can express intention. The more disordered the child, the closer to his/her body one must work in order for the child to react in an intentional manner. During a therapeutic session the zone may begin close to the child’s body but may vary — usually getting larger as the child becomes better related to the therapist.

After communicating with Zack, as described in chapter one, I had success in working on the concept of “give” using the drum stick. By making the sign for “give” Zack and I were able to get an exchange of drum sticks going. With barely verbal children, it is often possible to get them to vocalize and supply the missing words to a song they know by suddenly stopping the song and accompaniment at points of maximal tension. These places of “maximal tension” (Lewin, 1935) occur at the cadences during the last few notes before the final note of the music.

When working with a group of children, music can be used to organize childrens’ behavior by having them move to the music. Often I will have them march in a circle as I play music on a keyboard. With help of aides I will have the students stop when I stop playing and continue when I start again. When the children understand when to stop and start, I will turn this into a game where the person who stops moving last will be “out” and will have to sit down. Realizing that it is unreasonable to expect these children to sit still with their hands folded while the game plays itself out, a shaker is handed to them… but not before they ask for it and identify the piece of fruit the shaker represents, if appropriate.

With the child who has facility on an instrument, I will introduce myself into his world by sharing the instrument via turn taking and have the person who is not using the instrument, play an accompaniment on a percussion instrument.

The worst possible thing that I have too often seen, would be to have the children sit in a circle around a large instrument and do nothing while they wait to take a turn on the instrument. As this was being implemented, the children fell into a disorganized mass of stimming and challenging behaviors. This disorganization due to lack of engagement by all the children save for the one that was playing the drum was entirely preventable.

For the higher functioning child with autism in a school situation, band may be an important avenue for development. When considering a band instrument or such a child, placement in the band itself and the instrument learned are important considerations. For those with sound sensitivities, placement at the back of the band may prevent the child from being overwhelmed by the relatively cacophonous rehearsals. Instruments generally placed at or near the back of the band include tuba, trombone, French horn, trumpet or percussion.

The trombone may present quite a challenge as one needs a good kinesthetic sense of where one’s arm is in order to place the trombone slide in the right place for a note. Otherwise the instrument will be out of tune. However, if the child has a good ear for music, this instrument may improve coordination by requiring placement of the slide in the right position in order to play in tune. With the other brass instruments, less coordination is needed as pitches are obtained with the assistance of valves. The French horn requires much coordination of the embouchure.

Embouchure is French; meaning flow into mouth. The word refers to the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument. Sometimes it refers to the mouthpiece of a musical instrument.

Percussion may be another avenue. If complex rhythms present a challenge then a good place to start is the Bass drum where the rhythmic patterns are simpler. The bass drum, having low and relatively simple sounds, is often easier for a person with sound sensitivities to handle.

Woodwind instruments such as the clarinet, saxophone may be an option too although they tend to be located in the middle of the band and in front of the loud brass and percussion instruments. The oboe is a delicate instrument and may be difficult to play. The bassoon may prove to be unwieldy. The flute is relatively easy to learn to play and has a nice sound. It is one of my favorite instruments. However, there may be the potential for social problems from other kids if he is the only male paying this instrument. In most schools I’ve seen, the flute section is entirely or almost entirely female. A student can also transfer to another instrument later if he develops a preference to do so. In high school I obsessed on being able to play ALL of the instruments in the band. Again, a public school band can be a noisy, cacophonous place and being at the rear of this noise-making machine may be of help. It is never too late to begin to enjoy the benefits of making music. In addition to the purely musical benefits, playing in an ensemble is wonderful for working on concepts such as working together with others, coordination, and a sense of accomplishment, and a whole host of other things.

Taking what I learned at the Language and Cognitive Development Center I launched out on my first Cognitive-Developmental session using music without supervision.

This child had Asperger’s Syndrome. At first I taught him where to write the notes on the music staff. Then I created a system that involved him asking me for pieces of paper that had the letter names of the notes. I’d give him the notes and he, using another staff for reference that we wrote the notes on earlier in the session, would then place piece of paper in the appropriate place.

The system was expanded by having him draw a circle on the staff where the note belonged and write in the letter of the note. Then he would give the note to his mother. Fine motor problems were present and drawing a circle first helped confine where the note should go. Asking him on which space or line (as opposed to a generic “Where does the note go?”) the note should go on also helped.

The system was further expanded by making him guess which note I had in my hand. I would then tell him to go higher or lower. After he guessed the note correctly I then told him he had to write it on the staff before receiving the piece of paper.

We then took turns with him holding the notes, either his mother or I having to guess which note he had in his hand. When it came time for me to write the note in the staff I would ask him in a singing voice which line or space it went. All questions and answers were sung as opposed to being spoken. If I lapsed into the spoken word he would stim and drift away.

Other parts of the session were spent beating imitative drumming. I focused on taking turns. This was a good activity to do when he seemed to be fading away and losing focus. We also spent some time with imitative work on the recorder.

We all had a good time during the session. His mother was tuned in to us and participated very well in the session. The child has a lot of musical ability and using a Miller Method oriented approach, he can be taught to play the recorder and later the piano.

As time went on, I was successful in teaching him to play the recorder. After a period of time, his parents acquired a piano, which he also learned to play very well.


Miller, A & Miller, E. E., “Cognitive-developmental training with elevated boards and sign language.” Journal of Autism & Childhood Schizophrenia, v. 3, 65-68, Plenum Press, 1973.

The concept of “maximal tension” comes from Kurt Lewin’s A Dynamic Theory of Personality; Selected Papers. Translated by Donald K. Adams, McGraw Hill: New York, NY, 1935. It has been integrated in Miller’s Cognitive-Developmental Systems Theory

Excerpted from Shore, S. (2001). Beyond the wall: Personal experiences with autism and Asperger Syndrome.
Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Autism Asperger Publishing Company Beyond the Wall is at
Beyond the Wall is available at

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